A particle accelerator experiment that could rewrite the history of the printing press

I’m a little nervous. In my right hand I hold an invaluable part of human history. This is no exaggeration. It is a weathered black case, decorated with gold text on the front. In a Gothic-style text it reads “Paper from the Gutenberg Bible (1450 – 1455).”

yes, who – which Gutenberg Bible. These original pages, dating back to the 15th century, arrived at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in Northern California to be blown up by high-energy X-rays. Along with the pages of the Bible, there is a 15th-century Korean Confucian text, a page of the Canterbury Tales written in the 14th century and other Western and Eastern documents prepared to withstand this barrage. Researchers hope that in the pages of these invaluable documents lies evidence of the development of humanity’s most important invention: the printing press.


A page from the original Gutenberg Bible (1450-1455 AD) was scanned by a beam from the SLAC’s synchrotron particle accelerator.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What we are trying to learn is the initial composition of the inks, papers, and possibly any remnants of the fonts used in these Western and Eastern prints,” said imaging consultant Michael Toth.

For centuries, it was believed that Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press around AD 1440 in Germany. He is believed to have printed 180 scriptures (fewer than 50 exist today). But recently, historians have uncovered evidence that Korean Buddhists began printing around 1250 AD.


A page from the Gutenberg Bible from the first and second letters of Peter, mid-fifteenth century.

Jacqueline Ramsier Orel / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“What is unknown is whether these two inventions were completely separate, or whether there was a flow of information,” said Uwe Bergman, a professor of physics at the University of Wisconsin. “If there was a flow of information, it would, of course, be from Korea to the West to Gothenburg.”

To put it more clearly: Was Gutenberg’s invention dependent, at least in part, on Eastern technology? This is where Stanford Synchrotron Radiant Light Source Enter.


Annals of Spring and Autumn, Confucius, c. 1442.

Jacqueline Ramsier Orel / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

A synchrotron is a particle accelerator that shoots electrons in a huge ring-shaped tunnel to generate X-rays (as opposed to SLAC’s most famous linear particle accelerator, the 2-mile LCLS). These X-rays give scientists the ability to study the structural and chemical properties of matter. To see exactly how they use SSRL to study invaluable documents, watch the video above.

By firing an X-ray beam thinner than a human hair SSRL at a block of text in a document, researchers can create 2D chemical maps that separate the elements in each pixel. It’s a technique called X-ray fluorescence imaging, or XRF.


Source of Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lights (SSRL) at SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

“The atoms in that sample emit light, and we can keep track of which elements the light should have come from in the periodic table,” said Minhal Gardisi, a doctoral student working on the project.

Although SSRL’s X-rays are powerful, they do not damage documents, giving scholars a comprehensive view of the molecules that make up ancient texts. It also gives them the ability to search for trace minerals that historians say should not have been written in ink. This may indicate that they may have come from the printing press themselves. “This means we can learn something about the alloys that were used in Korea and by Gutenberg and then perhaps later on by others,” Bergmann said.


Scientists can use X-rays to create two-dimensional chemical maps of ancient texts like this Confucian document.

Mike Toth / SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory

If they find similarities in the chemical structures of the documents, it may contribute to the ongoing research on differences and similarities in printing techniques, and whether there is an exchange of information from East Asian cultures to the West.

However, every scientist I spoke with on the project made it clear that even if similarities were found between the two documents, it would not be proven conclusively that one technology influenced the other.

The documents are on loan from private collections, the Stanford Library and Archives in Korea. Research at SLAC is part of a larger project led by UNESCO Call From Jikji to Gothenburg. The results will be presented in Library of Congress next April.

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